Magazine | March 25, 2019, Issue

The 2020 Democratic Field Is a Clown-Car Show

(Roman Genn)
Unique and yet similarly absurd, the presidential candidates emerge

If you’re having trouble keeping track of all the Democratic presidential candidates, it’s understandable. To bring you up to speed, so far there’s New Jersey senator Cory Booker, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, former housing-and-urban-development secretary Julián Castro, Maryland representative John Delaney, Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, California senator Kamala Harris, Washington governor Jay Inslee, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. As of this writing, reports indicate former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper is in the running too.

We’re still waiting on a decision from former vice president Joe Biden, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, Montana governor Steve Bullock, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, Massachusetts representative Seth Moulton, former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, Ohio representative Tim Ryan, and California representative Eric Swalwell.

There’s also Governor Eugene Gatling of Connecticut, Maryland senator David Palmer, Kansas senator Robert Kelly, Virginia congressman Nicholas Brody, Springfield mayor “Diamond Joe” Quimby — wait, those figures are fictional. But one could be forgiven for nodding along to this ever-expanding list of names that sound vaguely familiar from the realm of politics of somewhere else in America.

The Democratic 2020 field is likely to have even more candidates than the Republican one in 2016, and even for political junkies some of these figures are pretty obscure.

A mega-field means that the candidates’ debuts in the spotlight are shorter and they have a smaller window in which to define themselves to a Democratic electorate — and in many cases, a national media — that knows little to nothing about them. For example, Gillibrand announced her campaign back on January 15; she’s been running for nearly two months. She’s been to Iowa twice; the only thing that generated headlines outside the state was a stop in an Iowa City restaurant, where Gillibrand’s remarks to supporters were interrupted by a woman trying to squeeze past the senator, declaring, “I’m just going to get some ranch” salad dressing.

Gillibrand keeps insisting she’s “running unabashedly as a mom,” as if parenthood were a unique trait in presidential candidates or her primary qualification. Her family relations are of note in more specific ways; her maternal grandmother effectively ran the Albany machine, and her father was a powerful lobbyist. She’s gotten a little bit of grief for having been, during Bush’s second term, a centrist Democratic House member with outspoken, Trump-esque positions on illegal immigration and guns, positions she changed nearly overnight when appointed to take Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. (She changed her view on gay marriage because the governor who selected her, David Paterson, told her it was necessary for the appointment.)

Presidential candidates used to court voters; now the process is closer to speed dating: meeting plenty of potential suitors for several minutes apiece, then selecting one based almost entirely on first impressions. (Come to think of it, that sounds like a lot of primary debates.)

This instant-definition process can take some surprising turns. Klobuchar is in her third term as a little-noticed senator; she’s mostly known for being “Minnesota nice” while giving the standard Democratic talking points on the Sunday shows. But now that she’s a presidential candidate, former staffers are talking to the New York Times and revealing the woman behind the image, describing a psychotic boss who throws binders in rage, makes underlings attend to personal tasks such as washing her dishes, and once asked an aide to clean her comb after she’d used it as a salad fork. Employees in the office of the senator who supported legislation requiring private employers to provide paid sick days and paid family and medical leave “were effectively required, once they returned” after the birth of a child, “to remain with the office for three times as many weeks as they had been gone.” Those who did not were required to pay back their salary from the days spent out of the office.

Cory Booker, who’s been touted as a Democratic rising star since his first bid for mayor of Newark in 2002, is now the field’s big, lovable softie. At a time when many Democrats’ attitudes are Conan-esque — they want to crush President Trump, to see his supporters driven before them, and to hear the lamentations of their women — Booker is talking about “universal love” and saying things like, “You definitely don’t get [to a better America] by fighting each other, beating people down.” We’ll see whether Democrats find that approach inspiring or hopelessly naïve.

As the modern Democratic party is obsessed with identity politics, its 2020 field is likely to have the precise diversity of a Benetton ad. Harris’s heritage is Jamaican and Indian, Castro’s parents are of Mexican descent, Gabbard’s father is of Samoan heritage, Buttigieg is gay, Warren is Native Americ — okay, we’ll end with Buttigieg.

Probably the most intriguing figure still on the sidelines as of this writing is O’Rourke. He spent much of 2018 covered by the national media as a sort of Lone Star Jesus, a “Vanilla Obama” who could slay the dragon of Ted Cruz and lead the Democrats to wins in Texas and much of the rest of Red America. He fell short but turned in the best performance by a Democrat running statewide in a generation, leaving many national Democrats virtually begging him to run for president. But after the election, he went on an odd, Kerouac-esque journey through the American West and published an easily parodied diary online. Since then O’Rourke has hemmed and hawed about the decision on Oprah’s couch and chosen not to announce at a giant counter-rally when President Trump spoke in El Paso.

Not all of the advantages O’Rourke enjoyed in 2018 are guaranteed in a 2020 bid. National Democrats donated that $80 million to him out of a loathing for Cruz as much as for a love for him. National publications that ran florid prose admiring his sweat probably won’t be as uniquely transfixed this time around, and his Democratic-primary rivals will punch back hard. (Perhaps unfairly, given that O’Rourke was running in Texas, they will ask: If he couldn’t win against Cruz in a good Democratic year, with more money than any other Senate candidate ever and glowing national media coverage, when exactly can O’Rourke win?) Throw in the 2003 video of him playing guitar onstage in a onesie and a sheep mask, the much more recent videos of him skateboarding in the Whataburger parking lot, the meager record of legislative accomplishments, the oddly under-prosecuted serious DUI at age 26 — it wouldn’t take that much effort to paint the baby-faced O’Rourke as an overgrown teenager. Republicans can accurately joke that he’s the kind of slacker ne’er-do-well that Kamala Harris would have put away for a long time in her days as a district attorney.

A handful of the figures still on the sidelines have been around politics long enough that their reputations are carved in granite. No one’s going to believe a narrative that Joe Biden is now a careful speaker. But an established reputation may prove to be an advantage when there’s so little time and bandwidth to define your persona.

Why do presidential candidates now come in litters? The cost–benefit analysis has changed over the past few cycles. Running unsuccessfully now offers too much upside, not enough downside. The first and most traditional argument against longshot bids — “You’ll never win!” — is now refuted by Trump’s unlikely victory. (These candidates forget that Trump entered the primary with 99.2 percent name recognition, according to a survey commissioned by GOP consultant Liz Mair.)

A lot of today’s lesser presidential campaigns amount to book tours on a larger scale, complete with a (usually sappy and ghostwritten) autobiography and campaign manifesto. The candidate changes from just another member of Congress to a frequent television guest; he’s invited to endless interviews, forums, roundtables, and debates; he writes guest op-eds. News organizations are ravenous for clicks and content, and someone, somewhere, will always want to interview the candidate. It’s a sweet deal if you can bear cold weather in Iowa and New Hampshire: Your name is on posters, complete strangers want your autograph and a photo with you, you’re always speaking before audiences that agree with you, every joke and jab at the opposition party generates laughter and applause. For about a year, you’re constantly told that you matter, and all of this is so much more fun than actual governing. There are plenty of political figures for whom “finished sixth in the Iowa caucuses” will rank as a top achievement.

The all-too-easy metaphor for this year’s Democratic party is the clown car from which contortionists seem to emerge endlessly, hoping to thrill the people watching. Much like the contortionist-clowns, the Democratic candidates are unique but nearly indistinguishable — they all loathe Trump; at least rhetorically support “the Green New Deal,” some variation of “Medicare-for-all,” and free college education; and denounce proposals for physical border barriers as architectural xenophobia. But maybe the more modern comparison is Netflix — there’s no shortage of options, but after a while they all start to look
the same.

This article appears as “Clown-Car Primary” in the March 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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